Review: Atlantic Chamber Ensemble

March 30, Richmond Music Hall, Capitol Ale House

The Atlantic Chamber Ensemble introduced a Nonet, “Rags and Hymns of River City,” by Mason Bates in a downtown Richmond venue better-known for rock and blues than for classical music. That the new piece, and others on the program, were not musical misfits in this space says a lot about the directions that the music commonly known as classical has been taking for the past generation.

Bates, who grew up in Richmond and has since become one of the most frequently performed living composers in this country, has been an active navigator and pilot in the new classical directions. He was one of the first to incorporate electronica (digitally generated sounds) into orchestral music, and his compositions frequently have drawn on vernacular musics, from folksong to jazz and blues to the more artsy strains of rock. This comes naturally to a musician who has doubled as a club DJ for much of his career. (He showcases that alter-ego in a series called Mason Bates’ KC Jukebox at Washington’s Kennedy Center, where he’s currently composer-in-residence.)

“Rags and Hymns of River City,” which ACE commissioned with underwriting from the Allan and Margot Blank Foundation, the Virginia Commission for the Arts and other donors, is one of the most unreservedly vernacular pieces I’ve heard from Bates. Where many of his compositions have used folk or popular references as a kind of garnish to classical forms, here he flips the script, with strings and woodwinds layering neo-neo-classical voicing onto non-classical forms such as the ragtime cakewalk and blues-jazz shuffle (both underpinned by Bates’ electronic rhythm tracks) to make street music of chamber music.

The three pieces that preceded the Bates premiere do much the same thing, albeit on differing paths at different altitudes.

Where “Rags and Hymns” has a rather mellow, Southern kind of urbanity, John Harbison’s Wind Quintet (1979), whose finale was performed in this program, gives off the more rhythmically angular and harmonically fractious air of the Northern city, where bebop and its descendants are the music of the night.

Gabriela Lena Frank’s “Leyendas: Andean Walkabout” (2001) for string quartet is a kind of aural history tour of the high country of Peru (source of one of the composer’s multi-ethnic roots), with vividly evocative, at times almost cinematically representative, sections recalling the region’s people and folkways, and a musical style that closely parallels folk and popular idioms.

The program’s opening selection, Molly Joyce’s “ABC” (2017), a duo for live viola (played by Kimberly Sparr) and an electronically doctored recording of a viola, is another sample of high-tension urbanity, more elemental than Harbison’s; in Joyce’s piece, syncopated pizzicato figures gradually grow into a vaguely yearning melody, which in turn recedes into a milder, somehow more resigned, pizzicato finale.

ACE’s members – in addition to violist Sparr, violinist Alana Carithers, cellist Jason McComb, double-bassist Ayca Kartari, flutist Jen Lawson, oboist Shawn Welk, clarinetist Jared Davis, bassoonist Tom Schneider and French horn player Erin Lano – rode this program’s varied grooves with energy, fluency and palpable engagement.

Mason Bates’ “Rags and Hymns of River City” will be reprised, alongside works by Maurice Ravel and Jean Français, at 4 p.m. June 2 at Unity of Bon Air, 923 Buford Road. Donation requested. Details: (804) 320-5584;

Letter V Classical Radio March 27

In the first hour, sampling a multi-century range of music from new recordings by pianists Lang Lang, Jeremy Denk and Michele Tozzetti.

noon-3 p.m. EDT
1700-2000 UTC/GMT
WDCE, University of Richmond
90.1 FM

Ginastera: “Danza de la moza donosa,” Op. 2, No. 2
Lang Lang, piano
(Deutsche Grammophon)

Carlo Gesualdo: Madrigali, Book VI – “O dolce mio tesoro”
Monteverdi: “Scherzi musicali” – “Zefiro torna, e di soavi accenti”
Purcell: “Ye tuneful muses” – Ground in C minor
(transcriptions by Jeremy Denk)
Scarlatti: Sonata in B flat major, K. 551
J.S. Bach: “Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue” in D minor, BWV 903
Jeremy Denk, piano

Bernstein: Sonata
Michele Tozzetti, piano
(Piano Classics)

J.C. Bach: Sinfonia concertante in A major, WC 34
Stephan Schardt, violin
Joachim Fiedler, cello
Musica Antiqua Köln/Reinhard Goebel
(DG Archiv)

Mendelssohn: Double Concerto in D minor, MWV 04
Kristian Bezuidenhout, fortepiano
Gottfried von der Goltz, violin & direction
Freiburger Barockorchester
(Harmonia Mundi)

Past Masters:
Handel: Passacaglia in G minor
(arrangement by Johan Halvorsen)
Jascha Heifetz, violin
William Primrose, viola
(recorded 1941)

Shostakovich: Piano Concerto No. 2 in F major
Boris Giltburg, piano
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic/Vasily Petrenko

Dvořák: Symphony No. 8 in G major
Budapest Festival Orchestra/Iván Fischer
(Channel Classics)

Wilkins taps ‘Americanism’s original voice’

Thomas Wilkins, Norfolk native, former associate conductor of the Richmond Symphony, describes his first subscription concert program with the Boston Symphony Orchestra (where he’s been conductor of youth and family concerts since 2011), devoted to composers of color – Florence Price, Duke Ellington, Roberto Sierra and Virginian Adolphus Hailstork – as “a launching point to move forward,” widening the orchestral repertory to include previously overlooked or neglected music.

“A lot of composers understood that if their music was going to have wide appeal, probably some of it was going to have to come from music of the ‘common person.’ That’s what this program is, except that we have less often focused on Americanism’s original voice in classical music. If you think about someone like Samuel Barber — he was an American composer who wrote in a Western European voice. And that’s not the case with Florence Price or Duke Ellington. I think that’s the major difference,” Wilkins tells the Boston Globe’s David Weininger:

Library of Congress adds 25 recorded ‘classics’

Each year, the Library of Congress adds 25 “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant” titles to its National Recording Registry. This year’s inductees range from collections of music by Yiddish performers, recorded between 1901 and 1905, and of American Indians, recorded from 1929 to 1939, to a 1952 episode of the television series “Gunsmoke” and Robert F. Kennedy’s speech following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968.

Headline hit songs added to the register this year are Cab Calloway’s ”Minnie the Moocher” (1931); “Soul Man” (1967), the rhythm and blues anthem by Sam and Dave; Richie Valens’ “La Bamba” (1958), one of the earliest mainstream Latino songs to make the pop charts; “Mississippi Goddam” (1964), Nina Simone’s bitter response to the killings of civil-rights activists in the Deep South; and “Sweet Caroline” (1969), an early signature tune by Neil Diamond.

Other inductees include the satirical “Stan Freberg Presents the United States of America, Vol. 1: the Early Years” (1961), the original Broadway cast recording of “Hair” (1968), rapper Jay-Z’s 2001 album “The Blueprint,” and “Schoolhouse Rock!: the Box Set” (1996), an anthology of tunes from the children’s television series.

Two classical sets made this year’s list of classics: The first recordings of the six solo-cello suites of Johann Sebastian Bach, made by Pablo Casals in 1938-39, and the 1963 debut recording of Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem,” led by the composer. (Casals recorded the suites in London and Paris; Britten’s recording was made in Britain.)

The Washington Post’s Travis M. Andrews reports on the Library of Congress’ latest batch of recorded classics:

A complete list of titles in the National Recording Registry can be found here:

Letter V Classical Radio March 20

On the first day of spring, music suiting the season by Vivaldi, Beethoven, Schumann, Tchaikovsky, Debussy, Copland, Stravinsky and the University of Richmond’s Benjamin Broening.

noon-3 p.m. EDT
1700-2000 UTC/GMT
WDCE, University of Richmond
90.1 FM

Vivaldi: “The Four Seasons” – “Spring”
Midori Seiler, violin & direction
Akademie für alte Musik Berlin
(Harmonia Mundi)

Tchaikovsky: “The Seasons,” Op. 37b –
“Song of the Skylark” (March)
“Snowdrop” (April)
“Bright Nights of May” (May)
Alexander Paley, piano

Schumann: Symphony No. 1 in B flat major (“Spring”)
The Hanover Band/Roy Goodman
(RCA Red Seal)

Debussy: “Printemps”
Cleveland Orchestra/Pierre Boulez
(Deutsche Grammophon)

Past Masters:
Copland: “Appalachian Spring”
Columbia Chamber Ensemble/Aaron Copland
(Sony Classical)
(recorded 1973)

Benjamin Broening: “Arioso/Doubles”
Arthur Campbell, clarinet
Benjamin Broening, computer program

Beethoven: Violin Sonata in F major, Op. 24 (“Spring”)
Pamela Frank, violin
Claude Frank, piano
(Music & Arts)

Stravinsky: “Le sacre du printemps”
Los Angeles Philharmonic/Esa-Pekka Salonen
(Deutsche Grammophon)

Menuhin winner scores Avery Fisher grant

The Chinese-born, Boston-based Angelo Xiang Yu, 2010 winner of the Menuhin Competition for young violinists, is one of this year’s recipients of $25,000 career grants from the Avery Fisher Artist Program, joining the JACK Quartet, pianist Henry Kramer and the piano duo of Christina and Michelle Naughton:

The next rounds of the Menuhin Competition will be held in Richmond from May 14 to 20, 2020. Winners will perform with the Richmond Symphony and the Sphinx Virtuosi in the finale of the symphony’s Masterworks series on May 23 and 24.

Letter V Classical Radio March 13

noon-3 p.m. EDT
1700-2000 UTC/GMT
WDCE, University of Richmond
90.1 FM

Berlioz: “Benvenuto Cellini” Overture
Staatskapelle Dresden/Colin Davis
(RCA Red Seal)

Past Masters:
Liszt: Piano Concerto No. 1 in E flat major
Sviatoslav Richter, piano
London Symphony Orchestra/Kirill Kondrashin
(recorded 1961)

Janáček: Violin Sonata
Jessica Lee, violin
Reiko Uchida, piano

Past Masters:
Honegger: “Rugby”
Orchestre National de l’ORTF/Jean Martinon
(Warner Classics)
(recorded 1971)

J.S. Bach: “Brandenburg” Concerto No. 1 in F major, BWV 1046
Ensemble Caprice/Matthias Maute

Past Masters:
Bartók: “Contrasts”
Joseph Szigeti, violin
Benny Goodman, clarinet
Béla Bartók, piano
(recorded 1940)

Jan Dismas Zelenka: Sinfonia à 8 concertanti in A minor
Freiburg Baroque Orchestra/Gottfried von der Goltz
(Deutsche Harmonia Mundi)

Mozart: Serenade in C minor, K. 388 (“Nacht Musique”)
Harmonie de l’Orchestre des Champs Élysées/Philippe Herreweghe
(Harmonia Mundi)

Shostakovich: Symphony No. 6 in B minor
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Andris Nelsons
(Deutsche Grammophon)

Chicago Symphony musicians on strike

Musicians of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra have gone on strike, following the failure of 11 months of contract negotiations.

The orchestra’s management proposed a contract that would raise musicians’ base pay, currently $159,000 a year, to $167,094 by the proposed pact’s third year, and would maintain medical, dental and life insurance coverage.

Pensions, however, would be converted from “defined,” or covered by the orchestra, to direct contributions from the players. Management says that required contributions to the pension fund have grown from $803,000 two years ago to $3.8 million this year.

Management and musicians have issued statements outlining their positions, reproduced on Norman Lebrecht’s Slipped Disc blog:

Riccardo Muti, the orchestra’s music director, has issued a statement supporting the musicians, whose spokesmen said before calling the strike that management proposals had “some encouraging aspects” but don’t come close to addressing our fundamental concerns,” the Chicago Tribune’s Howard Reich reports:

UPDATE (March 17): The orchestra administration says “[a] new agreement has not yet been reached, and the parties have not scheduled any further sessions at this time” (via Slipped Disc):

UPDATE (April 4): Chicago Symphony management and musicians will resume negotiations on April 5. The orchestra’s events have been canceled through April 9, the Chicago Tribune’s Howard Reich reports:

Classical music = ‘sinister civility’

Writing for The American Scholar, the San Francisco-based critic Theodore Gioia examines the film industry’s habit of linking evil characters and violent actions to classical music – often classics, such as J.S. Bach’s “Air on a G String” and the “Ode to Joy” from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, that aren’t at all ominous in mood.

Gioia asserts that film-makers are stoking a “current cultural psyche” that associates intelligence, sophistication and formality with calculated villainy. “Evil is a byproduct of brainpower. The implication is that aesthetic sophistication and psychopathic violence spring from the same mentality, a decadent hyperintelligence that becomes so cultivated that it savors homicide as a refined pleasure like [b]aroque cello.”

Classical music once had a robust niche in popular culture (the Marx Brothers’ “A Night at the Opera,” the Looney Tunes cartoons, Walt Disney’s “Fantasia”), but since the 1960s has become a “a kind of shorthand for sneering affluence and institutionalized elitism.”

Portraying villains as classical aficionados strikes “a chord of Everyman angst deep in the American subconsciousness: a vein of populist paranoia that suspects the shiny trappings of high society – galas, gowns, orchestras – exist to disguise the brutal source of its wealth. Decorum is an accomplice to depravity. . . . [T]he symphony becomes the sound of that sinister civility,” Gioia writes:


Review: Eighth Blackbird

March 7, Camp Concert Hall, University of Richmond

This season’s Tucker-Boatwright Festival at the University of Richmond might have been designed with Eighth Blackbird in mind. The festival’s theme is “Beyond Exoticism.” Its programs contrast traditional, often stereotyped representations of “other” – i.e., non-European – cultures with more recent “expression beyond difference” in art works that embrace “ethnic ambiguity and aesthetic complexity.”

Eighth Blackbird has been on this path for much of its 23-year history. The group’s programs often feature works adhering (more or less) to traditions of Western chamber music alongside pieces that draw both substance and form from vernacular cultures throughout the world.

In this program, the ensemble – violinist Yvonne Lam, cellist Nick Photinos, flutist Nathalie Joachim, clarinetist Michael Maccaferri, pianist Lisa Kaplan and percussionist Matthew Duvall – sampled music with Icelandic, Balkan, Afro-Caribbean and American popular stylistic influences.

The most compelling offerings, to my ears, were “Stay on It” by Julius Eastman, a gay African-American composer and pianist who struggled for recognition in his lifetime, died young in 1990, and only in the past few years has been appreciated for developing an art-music grown from popular roots; the premiere of “Four Rain-begging Songs,” British composer Alex Mills’ flute-and-clarinet duo loosely based on Balkan folk tunes; and “Madam Bellegarde” by Eighth Blackbird flutist Joachim, a wistfully melodic piece based on a song sung by her Haitian grandmother.

“Stay on It,” now regarded as one of Eastman’s classics, played here in a sextet transcription by pianist Kaplan, builds an insistently rhythmic riff, which might be described as Afro-Caribbean transplanted to urban American, into a fantasia that arcs toward violent intensity, then unexpectedly downshifts into almost baroque decorousness, then gives way to a gentle, almost resigned postscript. The ensemble made an urgent narrative of Eastman’s music, proving especially effective in bringing out its contrasts of mood and sound texture toward the end.

Joachim, playing flute and piccolo as well as vocalizing, and Maccaferri, playing B flat and bass clarinets, emphasized the novel tones and wind-playing techniques that give Mills’ song set its distinctive character. The ethnic roots of the first three songs are not easily detected; only in the dance-like finale does the piece clearly echo Balkan music.

Joachim’s affection is palpable in “Madam Bellegarde,” and the song on which the piece is based – first heard in a recording by her grandmother, later sung by Joachim – is a fertile source for a set of tuneful, playful variations for an ensemble of flute, clarinet, violin and cello.

Other works on this stylistically wide-ranging program:

– Angélica Negrón’s “Quimbombo,” an updated Caribbean festival, prismatically voiced for an ensemble of flute, violin, cello and percussion.

– Viet Cuong’s piano-flute-clarinet-percussion quartet “Electric Aroma,” which draws its title from a verse by Pablo Picasso – “an electric aroma a most disagreeable noise” – effectively rebutted in an attractively percolating fast tango.

– Jonathan Bailey Holland’s “The Clarity of Cold Air,” a winter tonescape with a few surprisingly warm episodes, inhaling and exhaling like a decidedly unfrozen organism.

– Fjóla Evans’ “Eroding,” a naturalistic evocation of an Icelandic glacier grinding a chasm in the land. The piece’s tonal character is a vivid acoustic echo of the mid-20th-century electronic sound-montage style known as musique concrète.

– Nina Shekhar’s “ice ’n’ SPICE,” music voicing the childhood memory of eating her father’s scorchingly spiced chicken masala with green chilies and easing the burn with ice cubes, in which the sextet veers between spare, open-textured strands of high-register tone and densely textured, frenetic passages.